I performed 3 evaluations yesterday morning. The first individual has been having cervical pain since a MVA in 1991, the second low back pain since her first child 7 years ago, and the last individual was having bilateral radicular symptoms for the past 6 months following a discharge from the military. All 3 can be defined as having chronic pain. Knowing their duration of symptoms alone, how does this change my plan of care? How does it change my prognosis? What sort of goals need to be set between the patient and I?
When a patient presents to you with pain for >6 months, they often are having pain in multiple joints. This makes sense from both a biomechanical and cortical reorganizing perspective. Biomechanically, if an individual is having pain, they will often start to move more from other body regions to avoid pain. These abnormal movements cause repetitive microstrains and result in pain as well. Additionally, individuals with chronic pain will posture themselves in non-painful positions throughout the day. You will often see them in a guarded, fearful posture. Looking at chronic pain from the cortical level, many changes begin occurring in the cortex in the presence of pain. Cortical smudging occurs and other areas of the brain become activated in the presence of pain. Some of these other areas are those associated with cognitive functioning and emotion so you can imagine how the pain completely envelopes their life.
As you can tell already, there is no magical solution to treating these patients. But good approaches include using graded exercises, addressing all barriers that will prevent them from succeeding, and creating realistic and specific goals to measure success. Graded exercise is essential because many of these people STOP exercising in the presence of pain. We see them completely deconditioned, making it difficult to distinguish between true tissue pain or simply the aches and soreness associated with starting a new exercise routine. Start small and start slow! For example, as part of their HEP, I gave one of these patients a home walking program (based off the results of their 6 minute walk test): Walk 4 minutes, 3x/day. Yes, it seems simple, but it is realistic! Barriers also need to be addressed. Typically if someone has been having pain for ~20 years, they have tried to seek care elsewhere but it has been unsuccessful. Why is it unsuccessful? Maybe the musculoskeletal pain is not the only factor. You need to determine if they have financial barriers, transportation issues, psychological issues, social barriers, and more (all of this is obtained during the subjective interview, but gathered much more throughout subsequent visits as you develop a relationship with the patient). Finally, realistic goals must be set. If someone believes they have 10/10 & have been having that pain for 7 years, completely eliminating their pain is not a realistic goal. You need to determine what the patient wants to achieve and set obtainable goals with a set time frame.
As you can imagine, adherence and compliance with therapy is another huge problem. Throughout these treatments, education is KEY. Sometimes it may feel that we turn into psychologists. This is partly true, but I say we have a little more power than them. Our research shows that graded exercise is beneficial for individuals with chronic pain. We can spend 1 hour listening to and educating the patient while having them exercise. Early in the treatment you may be taking on a "general exercising and conditioning" approach. This is fine! Stick with it and you will likely find you are often successful.